Changes to Federal After-school, Summer Meals Programs Sought

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CafeteriaWASHINGTON — Possible updates to federal child nutrition laws could make it easier for the organizers of summer and after-school programs to serve nutritious snacks and meals.

Advocates are pushing for changes that would expand the number of communities eligible for federal summer or after-school meals programs and streamline their administration.

Sage Learn, director of policy and advocacy for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said the meals and snacks are an important part of the organization’s mission. A child is best able to benefit from a club’s programming when he or she is well fed, with sufficient, nutritious food.

“The meal programs really tie together all of it. You’ve got to be feeding kids as well as giving them activities,” she said.

Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, federal child nutrition laws set the standards for an array of programs that aim to give low-income children access to healthy and nutritious foods, such as school breakfast and lunch, the summer food-service program and the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC).

But, Learn said, not not every club goes through USDA because it's too hard, even though they would qualify for reimbursement..

Congress is expected to consider updates to the laws in the coming months, as part of a reauthorization process that last took place in 2010. Lawmakers haven't released draft legislation yet, but the updates could affect nutrition standards or reimbursement rates for providing meals.

[Related: Rewriting Education Law: Senate Replaces ‘No Child Left Behind’]

Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee said last week they plan to consider bipartisan reauthorization legislation on Sept. 17.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking member of the committee, noted the role of out-of-school meals in a statement on the reauthorization.

“We must continue moving forward with the nutrition and hunger improvements from the last reauthorization. This year’s bill gives us an opportunity to build on those standards in addition to strengthening afterschool and summer meals, expanding opportunities for kids to have healthy, local foods, and protecting critical assistance to pregnant mothers and babies through WIC,” she said.

Summer meals support

In the runup to the reauthorization, advocates also stress the importance of summer meals.

In a social media campaign, organizations such as the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Clubs, the National Recreation and Park Association, the Afterschool Alliance and the National Summer Learning Association share stories of how summer meals programs help children by keeping them well fed and primed to learn.

Erik Peterson, vice president of policy at the Afterschool Alliance, said the groups wanted to show the connection between summer meals and the prevention of summer learning loss.

“Sometimes the connection is made between the two, but often it’s one or the other. But we want people to think of these as two sides of the same coin,” he said.

Peterson said advocates hope to see the provisions of a bill called the Summer Meals Act (S 613/HR 1728) included in the reauthorization. The bill would lower the threshold — based on free and reduced lunch rates — for communities to participate in summer meals, streamline applications for summer and after-school meal programs, provide transportation grants and allow providers to offer a third daily meal to children.

Learn said streamlining participation in the federal programs is important to clubs that sometimes choose between after-school and summer meals to avoid a duplicative administrative burden.

“It’s quite a process doing the applications, and they’re much better off spending times with the kids serving meals,” she said.

Peterson said the proposed improvements could also encourage groups that rely on private funding to provide meals to become part of the federal programs. The move would allow the groups to get federal reimbursement and provide nutritional standards.

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